Sports Performance Coaching to Swim the English Channel – a Matter of Life or Death

Over the years I have seen literally thousands of clients as well as teaching other therapists and practitioners all over the world. Many requests for assistance and pretty familiar and every week I receive e-mails for help with phobias, eating problems, anxiety related problems and other such issues. There are also times of the year when certain problems are very common. In the summer when people get married I see lots of people for public speaking issues and phobias of bees and wasps. By September I can count on receive lots of requests for assistance for spider phobias.

In September last year as I scanned the daily e-mails one in particular caught my eye. I read the following…

“Hello Nick! I am training to swim the English Channel this September. Whilst physical training is going well, I am sure I’d benefit from some assistance to deal with fears whilst in the water.”

My first thoughts on reading this were “Why on earth would anyone want to do that?” I agreed to meet Pete the client and began to hear the full story of why he needed help. In short Pete had been training to swim the channel for his son’s charity and during a recent practice swim he had a panic attack. Now every time he thought about this task he felt extremely anxious. He was not a professional swimmer and while he was experiencing this panic attack he kept thinking to himself

“Oh my god, if my arms go now, I’ve had it! People drown this way!”

This as you can imagine is not a good recipe for anyone wanting to swim the channel and he was also mindful that he had only 4 months before the actual event. Worse still he had paid a considerable amount of money ensuring that the event could go ahead and had received a great deal of sponsorship. In short a lot of people were relying on him…
As this task was for charity I agreed only to charge him for the first session and I would then see him free of charge for following sessions providing he kept a video diary during his practice. I learned from him that in order to be allowed to undertake this task you have to have a full health check and be able to swim at least six miles, so you can show you are fit enough. The actual swim is between 25 and 42 miles depending on tides! You are not allowed to wear a wetsuit and once in the water you can’t get out until you reach dry land in France.

Despite all precautions this could actually be a matter of life or death as it is a serious physical task and many factors including the weather are totally out of your control.
A key factor in coaching Pete was to use the tools from my PCW approach to removing anxiety, so he had a suitably calm but alert state when taking on this task. A key factor in helping him was giving him a full recording of each session we did together and ensuring that he listened back to these sessions to build his confidence. This is what he said afterwards about this aspect of the process

“Because I had your CD’s, so whenever I was wandering over the cliff tops and stuff like that for a walk, I was playing your audio and just changing perceptions, and the best thing was I could then get into the water, and you know that the swim this weekend was going to be more pleasant than the one the weekend before. As I was going through… I remember you made me question quite a few things that you assume are facts, because I would assume that the colder the water, the deeper it is, because I had a thing about deep water. And you would ask why. And you were right. As I was swimming and you go through this horribly cold patch, and I think it’s just an underwater river coming off the cliffs, but you immediately think it’s really, really deep water. And your first thought was how do you know its deep and challenge that assumption and that made me feel a bit better. Then you put in another thought which was that as long as it was deep enough to swim in, why was it a concern anyway, because as long as your arms aren’t scraping on the floor, whether it’s 150 metres deep or… the channel is 380 metres deep in some parts… why does it matter because you’re on the surface. It’s almost like you shouldn’t be scared of flying if the aeroplane is on the runway, what’s your problem? Maybe get concerned if you started to go down from a huge height, but the surface of the water is the safest place to be.”

On Sept 24th 5am he left Dover and began heading for France. Seventeen hours 55 minutes later he arrived on French soil. This is a great example of how to remove unhelpful anxiety and to build confidence in a real life context. This is what he said afterwards on the boat as he headed back to the UK

 “Thank you for all your help – I couldn’t have done it without your help – You can now stand up in a room and say that your methods and techniques got this fat wheezing bloke across the channel, and I’d back you up 100%.”

Pete Windridge – France

We made a video documentary for his son, so when he gets older he can see what his dad achieved!

Nick Kemp 

2 thoughts on “Sports Performance Coaching to Swim the English Channel – a Matter of Life or Death

  1. Nick Kemp

    Yes indeed a fascinating story. Also a great example of how useful change can occur in a very short period of time to produce a really extraordinary outcome.

    Reply

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